Dr Eyingbeni Hümtsoe-Nienu
Not very long time ago, the people of Yanthamo, they say, used to hear the howling of dogs, the grunting of pigs, the cry of babies and torches of flames stretching across the peak of Mount Tiyi till Totsü at Phiro village in Wokha, Nagaland. They were warned by their ancestors not to look at the flames directly! They believed, like all Lothas, that such phenomena were signs that somewhere, someone had died and was making its way into the abode of the souls of the dead – at Mount Tiyi. The locals aptly call it etchüi li or the “land/world of the dead”. Most Naga tribes living around Wokha, like the Rengmas, the Sümis, and the Aos, once believed the same. The essence of Mount Tiyi is truly mystical.
Mt. Tiyi is located in Wokha district of Nagaland and is about 1969 meters above sea level. The mountain is believed to consist of three mystical things: orchard or garden of the dead (etchüi phari), the entrance or hole to the land of the dead souls (etchüi kvü), and the spring or water of death (etchü ‘tchü).
1. The Orchard/Garden: The location of the orchard is said to be non-specific but believed to be somewhere in the forest area. The ancestors say that it is invisible to the eye but can be chanced upon only by some living persons. The only rule is that one may eat of any and as many fruit as one pleases but cannot take a single one out of it. If they try to bring home they would find themselves back in the orchard/garden. Shombo Nrisao (age, 78) tells me that three generations ago, a hunter by the name of Shümperü, is believed to have accidently arrived at this garden. He called it “God’s garden” (Potsow phari). He tried to pluck Senthan (bead for making Lotha women’s necklace) from a tree and take home but could not. He could arrive home only after he had left it where he found it.
2. The Entrance/Hole: The entrance of the land is also called the “hole of the dead”. Yanthamo, a village at the foothill of Mt. Tiyi faces the rocky side of the mountain. It is one village that offers the closest view of the “hole of the dead”. Rev Longshi (age, 65) explains that the hole is so small that only spirits, and that too the souls of those who have died a natural death can enter it (Others were simply disposed off in a cliff at the fringe of the village). Jümkaroni and Apisangla, the abode’s presiders at the deep end, were responsible to determine the nature of death and act accordingly.
3. The Spring/Water: At the mouth of the “hole of the dead” is a spring from where droplets of water trickle down. Apart from the fact that the spring flows down to Doyang River and is a source of water supply to the town, the Lothas attribute omens relating to the spring. It is said that if the water drips into the palm of a person, it is a sign that his/her death is imminent. At the ground of that water-drop footprints are seen. The direction of the footprints predicts the destiny of the sick and dying. If it’s facing the village, they will survive, but if it’s facing the “hole” they will die. In the same place it is believed that there are look-alike vegetables for the dead (etchüi ‘yohan) like Naga leek (rüptso), Naga spring onion (lasen) and Naga beans (orho).
Many folktales surrounding the mountain are common among the Lothas. Shombo Rhanlamo (age, 65) narrates the journey of an orphaned boy to the actual world of the dead.
Long time ago, there lived a family of four – mother, father, son and daughter. The parents died after clearing the field for farming. The orphaned siblings sadly had to continue where the parents left. As days went by, the siblings discovered that their cultivable field was getting bigger. Every morning they also noticed their fieldwork being completed. They wondered who could be helping them. The brother decided to stay in the field to clear the mystery. By nightfall, he saw the parents working in the field. He then made a plan for his sister and himself to follow the parents to the abode of the dead – they would jump into the shawls folded like a satchel tied around the neck. The sister missed; but the brother made it inside the shawl and onto the land of the dead. He saw how the dead fellowshipped by night and dispersed by day, metamorphosing into various creatures, particularly insects. The boy could not stop crying. The parents were ordered by the fellow-dead to send the living child out of the place. The parents brought him back to the village where he told the story to the living. He died soon after.
The Mountain seems to have been a resting place for the dead. It is not to be disturbed by the living. It is more like a privilege of those whose journey on earth has ended. Earlier, the entire mountain was seen as a sanctuary for wild animals like deer, stags, bears, monkeys, wild hogs and tigers and birds, including the hornbill. Variety of fruit bearing trees made it an ideal place for nature to flourish. Rhododendrons, also known as “flower of the dead” (etchüi thera) lavishly clad the contours of the mountain. Today, the barrenness of the mountain is conspicuous even from a distance. Efforts of surrounding village authorities to replenish the flora and fauna are a consolation because of the legends and ancient spirituality attached to the site.
Until Christianity came to those living in closer proximity of Mount Tiyi, Shombo Tsenimo (age, 70) recounts that most Nagas thought they would enter this mountain at death. Shombo Nrisao (age, 78) confirms the same and adds that bereaved families would come and longingly look up the mountain believing that the souls of their loved ones would travel there; perhaps anticipating a last sight or simply wishing to see them off at their final destination. Locals admit that today they are no longer privy to any paranormal sightings or sounds but continue to value it for its mystical significance. It may not be thought of as the “land/world of the dead” anymore but it sure continues to inspire awe whenever the sun shines upon it and onlookers are taken back to the time when it was.